Copyright © 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. See the attached file "license.txt" for details.

"LANDS-END" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Diving…sliding feet-first over the bouncy smooth side of the raft…dark cold water parting, embracing, closing in over my head…feeling once again the little shock at the back of my neck and hearing the rude belch of air from my lungs, the clicks as the gill-slits open…Throat closing, sinuses closing…Starting out then, no time to waste…the unseen cloud of bubbles tickling my face…Plunging forward through the midnight sea with powerful dolphin-like kicks, steering with outstretched arms…Guided, like many generations of mariners, by the bright flash of a lighthouse, filtered eerily through three meters of ocean…For a brief time, the warmth of Sah'ahl's parting embrace lingering in my arms and breast, until the water's chill steals it away…Sah'ahl…Nothing to be done about the cold, though, other than to endure it…and recognize that very soon things might be getting a good deal warmer…

Swimming…through darkness punctured only by dim pulses of pure white light…through silence broken only by the gurgle of water through my gills...Easier to open my eyes this time; why? A cool current down the length of my body, sluicing along my slick bodysuit, pulling my tail, dragging at the makeshift pouch fastened around my waist…my mane bound into a long braid by Sah'ahl's hands, tucked out of the way into the back of my bodysuit, giving me a strange, hunchbacked aspect…Body stiff, even a little sore, but rapidly loosening… Surrounded by vast black emptiness…a stab of agoraphobia, quickly supplanted by a strange tingling euphoria, stronger even than what I'd felt below the docks…No way can that be natural. No time to worry about it now, though…An odd, faintly metallic taste in my mouth: the flavor of water that is fresh, but by no means distilled… Memories of a salt-water pool, and overly-persuasive friends, at a California resort: stinging eyes, sore throat, shriveled flesh, crusted fur… Much better, this. Though to be warm and dry in my own bed would be better still

Swimming…Soon--too soon--feeling myself growing dizzy, heart laboring, leg-muscles burning…A quick stab of fear, angrily thrust aside…Basic biology: lactic acid fermentation--an anaerobic process. A problem with the gill? No: a problem with me, in a manner of speaking: Sah'aarans need more oxygen than humans. Forcing myself to slacken my pace a little, swallowing curses…Plenty of time. Only two kilometers to go, give or take…A twinge in my abdomen; sheer coincidence, a minor muscle strain…but bringing with it a pang of guilt. Shouldn't be doing this. Risking precious cargo… But what are two lives, or three, or even four, against the thousands at risk if battle erupts above? No choice…and probably no harm. Hopefully. The Goddess willing

Swimming…guided by flashes which become gradually brighter, easier to follow…closer now, much closer to my goal…Water growing shallower, bare sandy seabed rising to meet me, shimmering ghost-white as the light passes over…somewhere ahead, the chatter of waves breaking on rocks…water a little warmer, no time to wonder why…shying violently as something slimy brushes my foot…a frond of seaweed, perhaps, or an extremely surprised fish…no repetition, so no matter…

Pausing…turning my body to kick strongly upwards…head breaking the surface… holding on to a mouthful of water, so my gills won't close…Almost directly below the floodlit lighthouse now, there at the end of the breakwater: massive white cylindrical tower, brightly-shining lantern far above, Fresnel lens sparkling like a diamond…Harbor entrance to my right; the blaze of light beyond hurts my eyes…inverting my body then, feet up, submerging and turning left, skirting the breakwater, skimming along the encrusted boulders almost close enough to touch…

Swimming…lighthouse behind me now, breakwater falling away to the right…shallower still, seafloor broken by sheer masses of living rock…above, a band of orange brightness, the lights of the promenade…Searching, only halfway knowing what for, straining my eyes through the cold wet darkness…Finally! Ahead and to the right (how far? impossible to tell) a glowing yellow-green semicircle…Surging forward then, full speed, caution to the wind…Nobody in his right mind would be out for a swim at this hour…Too eager, too fast: sudden fire shooting down my legs, stars before my eyes…forcing myself to halt, even as the glowing crescent resolves into the brightly-lit mouth of a large tunnel, emerging boldly from the inshore rock, entrance secured with a massive metal hatch…no recognition, though, no sense of deja-vu…just the sterile knowledge that I have passed this way before, bound and blindfolded…

Stopping. So close and yet so far…but no good continuing in this state: wait till you've caught your "breath." Slipping in behind a rock, a knob of basalt as tall as me, thickly encrusted with algae…just for a minute, no more, to rest, to watch…a message from the Goddess, perhaps? "Be more careful, stupid?" Floating, reaching around to feel the pouch, a plastic bag taped to my waist, fingering the items within…assuring myself that the disk is still there…Won't get far without that. Maybe not even with it. Memories, thoughts, plans, regrets, rising up to flood my brain…dangerous to let them distract me; impossible to prevent it…Memories, then, yes: to tell me perhaps how I got myself into this mess…

###

Squinting into the magnified glare, I swept the binoculars in a slow circle, anxiously scanning the horizon…but we were indeed still alone. "Now that we're here," I called down into the cabin, "what do we do?"

Sunset on the high seas. Our little boat lay, rocking gently on the nearly-imperceptible swells, about a hundred kilometers due south of the capital city. Close enough so that the truncated brown cone of Discovery Peak was visible, peeking over the horizon--but not so close as to attract unwelcome attention. We hoped. As Linda Rochelle had once observed, it was a big ocean, and even though the capital was the planet's busiest port, so far we had spotted no other craft, neither visually nor by radar. Hopefully our good fortune would hold until nightfall--when it would finally, permanently cease to matter.

We'd departed from the fish-packing platform an hour after sunset, setting forth onto a sea which--though certainly far from calm--was comfortably short of deadly. Our boat handled the swells with remarkable aplomb, dancing from crest to crest, at times almost literally airborne as the keel passed over the troughs. Altogether a much smoother ride than I'd expected…but still, I felt a definite stab of apprehension as the platform--our refuge, our shelter from storms both meteorological and political--vanished into the darkness behind us. A place which would forever live in my memory--as would its pervasive fishy stench.

Sah'ahl set our course himself, using the global-positioning system. He did not aim us directly at the capital, though; instead, he wisely chose a spot some distance removed, a place where we could pause, catch our breath, rest…and finalize our plans, such as they were. Through the watches of the night we took turns, two hours at a stretch, one of us manning the control panel while the other slept. Better than no rest at all, I suppose--but not much better. As we plowed ahead, full-throttle all the way, the sea gradually calmed; until finally, as dawn broke the cloudless horizon, the water lay nearly glass-smooth. A good omen, I hoped: a sign perhaps that the Goddess approved of our reckless plan.

How Sah'ahl passed the time during his watches I didn't know; but as for me, I spent those long hours on the radio, trying again and again to raise Yerba Buena. My bond-mate might not have approved, and in fact I never told him. But I judged the danger to be minimal, and the potential benefits great. We were a moving target now, as opposed to what the Terrans call a "sitting duck"; and I would have done almost anything, taken any risk, to be spared the task which loomed before me. Unfortunately my efforts were once again for naught, and along about dawn I began to seriously entertain the notion that the battleship was no longer there to receive my signals. Only if I managed to reach my pod would I know for certain; but if so…what then? Surrender, I suppose--though to someone other than Akad. And then? That question was a little harder to answer. My bond-mate's ultimate fate seemed easy enough to guess: a kangaroo court would convict him of murdering those kidnappers--but then his employers would demand his release, and the governor would comply. As for me, though…I had begun to believe Sah'ahl was right: the thing encircling my neck guaranteed me a future very much like a lab rat's. Could he save me from that fate? And--more to the point--would he? Or would he mysteriously forget me? A chilling notion--but all too possible, given that his employers controlled his very thoughts. And what about the kits I was almost certainly carrying? What would their fate be? That didn't even bear thinking about…

We drove on throughout the day, keeping a sharp lookout for boats, seeing none. And finally, as the afternoon waned, we drew to a halt in this place, this random patch of water, to wait for nightfall. Some things are best accomplished under cover of darkness…and unlawful entry is definitely one of them.

Sah'ahl emerged from the cabin and crossed the deck to stand beside me at the rail, slipping his arm around my waist. Almost against my will--almost--I found myself nuzzling playfully under his chin, and I heard a purr rumble forth from the depths of my belly.

"Now," he said with a smile, "we begin to improvise."

I chuckled bitterly. "Meaning that you have no idea what the hell we're doing either."

"On the contrary," he assured me. "As a matter of fact, I have a plan."

I glanced up, astonished. "Already?"

"Of course," he replied grandly. "I haven't spent the last twenty-four hours chasing my tail, you know."

"So?" I demanded.

"All in good time, my dear," he said mysteriously. The boat rocked then, and he reached out with his artificial hand to steady himself. His other hand--the softer one--was gently massaging my hip; somewhat distracting, but I certainly wasn't going to tell him to stop. A moment later he went on:

"As I see it, our task has two components. The first and most difficult is to get you into the Government Building."

I sighed. "I know," I replied. "I've been beating my brains out over that one too." I touched the gill. "Obviously this gives me the element of surprise--I can swim to shore without breaking the surface, a route Akad would never expect me to take. But what then? I wouldn't get ten meters in the daytime--and at night that building must be locked up tight, guarded…"

"True," Sah'ahl agreed. "I was able to get out of the building unseen--but that is a very different thing from getting in. But obviously it can be done--our friends the Protectors proved that."

"The tunnels," I said slowly, thoughtfully. I shook my head. "No," I went on. "No good. Even if I could make my way through them without being seen--"

"The kidnappers did," Sah'ahl pointed out. "Obviously by choosing the least-frequented passages. A roundabout route--but workable."

"--There are still the hatchways to contend with," I continued stubbornly. "The building's underwater entrances would be locked at night too. Especially now."

Sah'ahl nodded. "Doubtless," he agreed. "But once again, the kidnappers were able to circumvent that. How?"

I shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "Ask Linda Rochelle."

He gave me a strange, sidelong look then shook his head and grinned. "I don't need to," he said. "I have this."

He brought forth a small object from his sash pouch and handed it to me. I found myself holding a concave disk about eight centimeters in diameter. The outer side was jet-black, but the inner was mirror-bright: it shone blood-red in the sunlight, and was engraved with a network of fine dark lines, radiating out from the center to branch and meander like tree-roots. A pattern which seemed somehow familiar…

"What is it?" I asked.

"Ah," he said. "Exactly the question I've been asking myself--and I believe I finally have an answer. I acquired that object at the same time as the homing device, from my late kidnappers. I had no idea what it might be--and occupied as I was with getting out of the building and remaining at liberty long enough to acquire a boat and come in search of you, I completely forgot about it. Earlier, while considering ways to get you into the building, I recalled something Governor Odyn once told me about those tunnels and hatchways. Did you ever discuss the subject with her--?"

I nodded. "Yes," I said. "My first day on the planet. I was concerned about privacy and security…"

"As was I."

"And she told me that private spaces are secured with retina-scan locks."

"Using a low-power diffused laser," Sah'ahl confirmed. "Yes. A primitive system…"

"This is a backward planet."

"Of that, I am only too aware. At any rate, I have become convinced that this--" he nodded at the disk-- "is very like what the Terrans used to call a 'skeleton key.'"

I glanced at the thing. So that was why the engraving looked so tantalizingly familiar: it mimicked the delicate tracery of capillaries on the inner surface of the eye. A pattern which--in most vertebrate species--is as distinctive, as individual, as a human fingerprint. "You may be right," I said finally. "But if so--there's no way the Protectors constructed it."

"Indeed not," Sah'ahl agreed. "I suspect it has an official function--in law enforcement, perhaps, giving officers easy access to crime scenes. My guess is that the Protectors stole the disk--and at least one other."

Or did they? I wondered darkly--but that wasn't important right now. "Assuming you're right," I said, "two objections. Number one: after the kidnapping, can we be certain this thing is still active? If these things are used by the local police--then they might be issued individually, like badges. This particular pattern may have been withdrawn from service."

"True enough," Sah'ahl agreed readily. "But unfortunately, we have no way to know for certain--except to try."

I almost asked, who's "we?" but I refrained. Instead I said, "Number two: unless those tunnels come equipped with a directory--and we can't count on that--how am I supposed to find my way? My last trip through, I was hardly in a position to notice the landmarks."

"Ah," Sah'ahl said. Looking embarrassed, he stroked his whiskers. "I think I can help you there. You see--" he paused, coughing delicately into his hand-- "I have the entire system memorized."

"You do," I stated flatly. I sighed and shook my head. "Of course you do. For your employers' benefit, I assume?"

"Naturally."

I was about to ask him how he could possibly have accomplished such a feat, given the immense complexity of a system which ran throughout the city--but then I remembered what he kept underneath his wig. Goddess! I thought. Does he memorize everything? Will the details of our every conversation eventually find their way into a Chrysaoan database? Will hordes of Jelly sociologists someday pore intently over every sound I uttered as he and I made love? But I couldn't afford to dwell on that either. "All right," I said finally. "We've committed ourselves to trying to reach my pod, the Goddess help us, and I suppose using the tunnels is a slightly less irrational idea than walking up to the front door in broad daylight and asking to see Major Akad. But…assuming I can actually get inside the building, what then?"

Sah'ahl nodded. "That's the second component." He smiled. "And I have some thoughts on that as well…"

###

Resting…I caught myself on the verge of dozing off, and I shook my head hard, angrily clearing away the cloying drowsiness. Sleeping underwater? For the amphibians it ought to be possible, theoretically speaking, and some of them probably preferred it that way. But as for me…well, when this was all over I fully intended to sleep for at least a week--but I'd do it in my own bunk aboard the battleship, thank you. And alone? But that was not a line of thought I cared to pursue.

Five minutes had elapsed since my arrival at the edge of the single continent; half an hour, perhaps, since I parted from Sah'ahl at the raft. I'd made better time than I'd dared hope. About now the clocks in the capital city would be striking midnight; most of the population should be tucked up in bed, not gadding about in the tunnels. Or so I hoped. By now too my bond-mate would be on his way back to our borrowed boat. If things went as planned I would be picking him up there. If not…but I didn't care to dwell on that either. I'd made Sah'ahl promise that he would attempt nothing heroic if I failed to return; but bond-mates can't lie to each other, and even as he'd spoken his vow I'd known that his muttered words weren't worth the spit behind them. Another reason why this had to work.

Well--my legs had stopped burning by then, the fatigue poisons flushed away; and my head felt as clear as I could reasonably expect. Time to go back to work. Cautiously I edged forward and peeked around the boulder. The tunnel mouth was where I'd left it, five meters away, the gate still firmly closed. More importantly, by all appearances I was still the only sentient being in the vicinity. Better and better. I left my hiding-place then, swimming slowly and easily until I hovered in mid-water directly before the massive structure. Though undeniably large, it was not particularly impressive, not to a Combined Forces engineer: just a semicircular metal hatch, three meters high and wide, recessed two meters into the mouth of the tunnel, the number "6" stenciled on it in red, the paint slightly eroded. No different, I suspected, from any of the dozen such gateways which allowed the amphibians easy access to the open sea--except that this one happened to lie closest to the Government Building.

I found myself hesitating, holding back; and once again I shook my head angrily. Get going, coward, I told myself. I started forward--and immediately ran into my first obstacle. Mounted on the tunnel wall to the right of the gate was a square metal box …from which, as I drew near, flashed the bright red eye of a low-power laser. Nonplused, I halted. So soon? I hadn't expected this; hadn't expected to confront one of those damned things until I tried to enter the Government Building. But…it made sense. If the gate had been operated by a simple motion-detector, it would have been cycling constantly, every time a curious fish poked its nose into the tunnel. So…

Backing water a little, until the laser switched itself off, I twisted around to fumble with my makeshift belt-pouch. It was a bag within a bag: some of my equipment absolutely had to remain dry. What was the name Sah'ahl had given those items? "Diversions," that was it, as in "you create a…" Carefully then, so as to not disturb that sanctum sanctorum, I teased out the little concave disk, cupping it in my hand with the mirrored side out. Had it been possible I would have taken a deep breath; perhaps I gulped down a larger mouthful of water instead. Moment of truth: either the gate would open, or it would not. And if not…well, at best I would be in need of a new plan. At worst…I might find myself swimming for my life with the entire Lands-End police force on my tail. But I still had precious little choice. I paddled forward…and when the laser clicked on again, I slipped the red mirror into its beam.

It was probably no more than five seconds that I waited--though it felt like five hours--my claws expressed, my tail churning up a cold current behind me, my palms and foot-pads tingling. Would I hear the alarm in time to get away? Or would the police officers simply materialize, as if they'd dropped through a hypertunnel? Better the police than Akad…Unless--as I strongly suspected--he had them in his figurative back pocket…

Finally, with a subsonic rumble, the gate opened, splitting into three triangular segments which vanished smoothly into the walls and floor. I braced myself…but the tube beyond was entirely deserted. Fighting an overwhelming urge to collapse, I kicked forward. Behind me the hatch slammed shut, causing me to whirl around, my heart in my mouth. Get a grip, I chided myself sourly. Already a nervous wreck, and the job not yet half completed…

Ahead of me stretched a long straight passage, cylindrical, about three meters in diameter, grey-painted and almost completely featureless. A strip of greenish glow-tubes running along the ceiling provided illumination; rather dim really, but after my midnight swim it seemed intolerably bright, and a few salty tears mingled with the fresh water. I felt a gentle current against my face, a circulation of cool oxygen-rich water, reassuring me that I was in no danger of asphyxiation. In the distance, six or seven meters ahead, the tunnel branched, two slightly-narrower tubes taking off to the right and left. And yes, there was a directory mounted on the wall near the branching. Even from that distance I could read it easily; for some reason my underwater vision seemed sharper than ever before.

For a brief moment I gave myself over to the shakes, my arms wrapped tight around my torso. I'm an engineer, dammit, not a burglar! --Or a fish, I added ruefully. But the hallmark of a good CF officer (so my instructors used to tell me) is flexibility…and a nervous breakdown was a luxury I couldn't afford. Not yet, anyway. Carefully stowing the disk against future need, I pushed on.

At that point I had a very important decision to make, one I'd been dreading for hours. Sah'ahl had indeed been able to sketch, from memory, the entire tunnel system--a feat I still regarded as more than a little creepy--and based on my recollections of my blindfold journey, had mapped out the most likely route taken by Linda Rochelle and Mary Crane: a serpentine path of service tunnels, byways and back-roads. I'd struggled to commit that route to my own, less-perfect memory--but was it the one I truly wanted to follow? A shorter road to the same destination lay before me, one I had mapped myself, and which I felt certain I could traverse in five minutes or less. But it would take me through passages that could only be described as "thoroughfares." The longer path was perhaps safer--though I could argue that either way--but it would prolong my agony by at least half an hour. Longer, if I managed to get lost--a distinct possibility. Which would serve me better: stealth or speed? Linda and Mary had opted for the former--and in their position, burdened with helmets, rebreathers and a captive, I would have done the same. But alone, late at night…dare I hope that my silhouette would be sufficiently like an amphibian's to rate nary a second glance?

As I neared the first junction I slowed, idly taking note of a softly-glowing signboard covered with unfamiliar place-names, multicolored arrows pointing the way. Here was the crux of my dilemma: to the right lay caution; ahead, expediency. I hesitated…for all of two seconds before taking a deep gulp of watery air and plowing on, straight as an arrow. The boldest hunter gets the biggest buck. Was it my inner engineer who caused me to choose the faster, more efficient route? To a certain extent, perhaps; but of course that's hindsight. At that moment no such thought entered my head; I only wanted my nightmare to end.

###

A homecoming--of sorts.

Resting my elbows on the edge of the pool, hooking my claws into the carpet to keep myself from sinking, I spat the final mouthful over my shoulder. I waited until the gill-slits snapped closed and my nose and throat popped open, flooding my lungs with that unfamiliar substance called "air;" then--only then--I hauled my tired dripping body out onto dry land. My legs wouldn't allow me to stand, not yet, so I collapsed face-first into the puffy rug. I'd made it. Somehow, only the Goddess knows how, I'd made it.

For the better part of five minutes I lay there panting, straining my ears into the silence, feeling the little rivulets running down my sides and soaking the carpet. At some point I reached behind my head and pulled my mane free from my bodysuit. The long tight braid lay moist and cold across my shoulders like a hank of sodden rope, but I lacked the strength and the time to undo the complex knot Sah'ahl had tied. Let it be for now.

It felt wonderful at first just to lie there motionless; but eventually my damp body began to grow uncomfortably chilly. More importantly, I still had a job to do, and getting about it would be the fastest and easiest way to warm myself. I sighed, got my legs under me, and sat up. The room was dark, the shapes which surrounded me vague and amorphous. But even so, this time the stab of deja-vu was immediate, strong--and surprisingly painful. Perhaps because this was the very last place where I had felt even remotely secure.

Though physically exhausted, mentally and emotionally I was riding high. And small wonder: for once I had gambled and won. My route through the tunnels had proven both expeditious and completely safe. Only once had I glimpsed another living being, near the start of my swim; but although the encounter nearly gave me heart failure, the amphibian vanished down a side-tunnel before I even got a look at her face. She hadn't seen me at all, hadn't even glanced in my direction. The tunnels, I'd discovered, were less like roads and more like veins and arteries, endlessly branching, larger tubes spawning smaller ones, over and over, some of them so narrow as to admit only one body at a time. For the most part I'd stuck to the wider, public passages, which were entirely gateless. I had been obliged to use Sah'ahl's "skeleton key" just twice more; once to enter the Government Building complex, through a public-access hatchway which would have been wide open during business hours; and a second time to reach…here. After more than a week I had come full circle, returning to a place I'd never expected to see again: my own opulent guest quarters on the building's first floor. As good a destination as any; and a fine and private place--so I hoped--from which to begin the next phase of the operation.

My legs were still shaky, but nonetheless I hauled myself to my feet. The sitting-room was quite dark, illuminated only by the reflected lights of the Promenade and the intermittent flash of the lighthouse. More than enough for my eyes--though for some unaccountable reason the silhouettes surrounding me were curiously fuzzy. Cautiously then, with the only weapons I possessed--my claws--held high, I began a rapid but thorough search of the entire suite. The results were at once heartening and disappointing. Heartening because I was alone; no one else had been assigned the use of those rooms. But disappointing because my property, my clothing and other items, was gone. I had expected that, of course…but even so, I couldn't help feeling a pang of regret. It should have been the loss of my commpak which troubled me the most…but in fact it was not. No: it was the absence of my portable shrine which caused the sharpest pain--and the deepest anger too. Only the Goddess--and Akad--knew what had happened to it.

As with a great many other things, though, I would have to worry about that later. Firmly ignoring the siren song of the bed--I would have liked nothing better than to strip off my damp clothing and curl up beneath those soft covers--I returned to the sitting room. Settling down cross-legged on the floor, I peeled away the long strip of tape which bound the plastic bags around my waist. Time for Phase II: diversions.

Fortunately, the items in my sanctum sanctorum had remained bone-dry. Pulling those things out of the bag, arranging them in a neat line before me, I once again had to suppress a shudder of revulsion. Sah'ahl had assembled the collection, unbeknownst to me, culling it from our boat's emergency stores and from a maintenance locker in our warehouse hideaway. Flares, and the little orange plastic pistol which launched them; hand-held smoke-bombs, used for signaling--as, say, from the deck of a sinking boat; a container of flammable solvent and another of lubricating oil; and a pillowcase torn into strips. I remembered the horror I'd felt when I first set eyes on those items, spread out on the table in our boat's cabin…and realized exactly what Sah'ahl meant by a "diversion."

"You're asking me to commit arson?" I'd demanded, and my bond-mate shook his head firmly.

"Not at all," he assured me. "Once you're in the building you must make your way up the service-stairs to the roof. Easy enough, you already know the way--but your pod is almost certain to be guarded. Akad won't have neglected that. You'll have to get those guards out of the way somehow--and in the absence of weapons, what better way than a fire alarm?" He nodded at the flares and other items. "Placed properly--in a ventilation duct, perhaps--these should cause a maximum of confusion with a minimum of real damage."

With few alternatives, I'd agreed, and allowed him to pack the things into a double bag, squeeze out the air, and bind the bundle around my waist. But the idea still troubled me; somehow it felt…wrong. Contrary to my CF training, contrary to my own sense of ethics, which had been honed by a conservative Sah'aaran upbringing. I was always taught that the ends never justify the means

Whether it was the Goddess expressing her disapproval of my plans, or whether it was the Dark Ones inserting a little more randomness into an already chaotic situation, I'll never know. But even as I sat there, gazing at my flammable devices and trying to decide how best to employ them, the situation changed yet again--suddenly, drastically and utterly.

I heard the hum of the door, and I half-rose; but it was already too late. The ceiling light clicked on, all but blinding me; and a harsh, high-pitched and unfortunately familiar voice growled, "All right, you--hands up!"

For an instant I considered my options. The pool? Too far. The flare gun? Unloaded. With no way out, I slowly lifted my arms above my head. "I surrender," I said quietly--just for the record.

"Stand up and turn around--slowly."

I did so…and what I saw surprised me not at all. Of course it was Dail Akad standing there in the doorway, scowling beneath his skullcap; who else would it be? The sight of him caused within me a strange feeling of inevitability; it was as if I'd become caught in a Greek drama--or perhaps a medieval morality play. Almost as if I had known this would happen; almost as if I'd willed it to. He stood frowning, his left thumb hooked in the waistband of his tights…but the weapon he pointed at me was not his projectile gun. In fact it was a CF-issue stinger. My stinger, that is, confiscated by him when I arrived on the planet. The twin discharge points were aimed directly at my heart.

If in some strange fashion I had been expecting to see him, he had apparently not expected to see me. As I turned to face him his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. "You!" he blurted. "How in the--?" And then he caught sight of my neck. His always-pale face went suddenly dead-white, and the stinger nearly fell from his hand. "Good God," he muttered. "It works. It actually works…"

He shook himself then, and his grip on the weapon firmed. "How pleasant to see you, Commander," he said with forced joviality. "I always suspected we'd meet again--though the circumstances aren't quite what I imagined."

Battling the black wave of despair that threatened to rise up and smother me, I looked him squarely in the eye, lowering my hands to my sides. He appeared not to notice. "How did you find me?" I asked.

He smiled mockingly. "Oh, that wasn't hard," he said. "We've been tracking you since you entered the tunnels. We've been waiting for someone to use that disk again--"

Inwardly I cursed, and I fought to keep my face from betraying my horror. Of course, I thought angrily. We should have known. Goddess, how could we be so stupid?

"--But I must admit," Akad went on, "I hardly expected to find you here. I thought it would be one of your friends the Protectors."

"They're not my friends--" I began, but he cut me off with a sneer.

"You expect me to believe that?" he demanded. He swept his free hand in a wide arc. "You arrive here in the middle of the night, gaining entrance with a stolen police pass, carrying tools of sabotage--and you expect me to believe you weren't sent here on a terrorist mission?" He glanced at my equipment. "What did they tell you to do--burn down the building? Are they really that desperate now?"

I shook my head tiredly. "Major," I said, "I don't give a damn what you choose to believe. This is the truth--take it or leave it. I came here for one reason: to get to my landing pod. No more, no less. Let me do that, and I promise your precious Government Building will suffer absolutely no harm. And better still, you'll never see me again."

Akad stared at me open-mouthed…and then, incredibly, he began to laugh. "Just like that?" he asked. "You break in here, carrying stolen property and intending to commit arson, and I'm supposed to simply escort you to your pod and wave bye-bye? No, Commander, it doesn't work that way."

"You don't understand…"

"No, Commander," he repeated, his voice and face suddenly hardening. "You don't understand. You chose to involve yourself in this planet's politics. Right up to your neck, you might say. My guess is that you've been following orders all along--that the Alliance sent you to steal that device. But whatever your game is," he went on quickly, before I could even begin to mouth a denial, "it's all over. From now on you're playing by my rules. I don't envision you leaving Lands-End, Commander. Not for a very long time."

And with that…I jumped him. Tired of this planet, tired of this situation, tired of him, I had nothing to lose. Claws expressed, teeth bared in a snarl of pure hate, I launched myself directly at his throat. I almost got away with it, too. For a fraction of a second he stood frozen in terror--then he whipped up the stinger and fired, point-blank. I felt the crackling shock enter my chest, my heart…and everything went black.

The boldest hunter…sometimes gets a kick in the teeth.


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